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Personal effects in 1944 downed bomber help identifying Canadian airmen
Wreckage LV 905 yields human remains
Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill
HANK, the Netherlands – The recovery of the wreck of a RAF bomber which crashed near this village on the edge of the Biesbosch moors on May 25, 1944, has yielded remains of the five men aboard the Halifax LV 905. Identification however is time consuming and could prove to be impossible since most of the bone fragments are very small.
Much of the front fuselage and wings had plowed through a creek dike (since leveled and used to fill the creek) and burrowed deep into the spongy soil. Among the recovered 14,000 kilograms of wreckage are the four engines and propellers, guns and cannons and ammunition as well.
Personal effects found include two whistles, part of a cigarette case, Canadian and British coins and a pocket watch. Two of the seven downed crewmen were Canadians, four from England and South Africa, while the 21-year old captain was from Rhodesia.
Some of the relatives of the seven flyers witnessed part of the recovery and preferred separate internments. British policy however dictates that the crewmen will share a communal grave.
Graveyard of planes
On May 24, 1944, Rhodesian pilot Eric ‘Tug’ Wilson flew his bomber from a base in Southern England to join other heavy bombers for a night raid on targets in Germany. The purpose of this and other sorties was to inflict damage or eradicate railway lines, bridges and other infrastructure in preparation of the impending invasion of Europe.
Wilson’s crew consisted of South African co-pilot Allan Marston, radio operator Joe Henderson, engineer John White and tail gunner George Butler, all from England. Navigator Sidney Peterson and gunner Thomas Lloyd LeBlanc were the two Canadians. The plane carried a bomb load of 6,000 kilograms.
Following the raid on a train switching yard near Aachen, the aircraft headed home just after midnight. German Messerschmidt night fighters scrambled from a base near Sint Truiden in Belgium to intercept the lumbering giants. Of the 432 bombers dispatched that night, 25 failed to make it back to their bases. Over 190 airmen went missing. Ten of the downed bombers crashed in the Netherlands, then increasingly a graveyard of Allied planes.
The first Halifax to fall victim to the radar-equipped Messerschmidts was the LW 137 piloted by Thomas Rawlinson. The plane caught fire, but three crew members ejected safely and eventually wound up in a German POW camp. The other four perished when the plane crashed near Geertruidenberg.
Luftwaffe pilot Karl-Heinz Scherfling then turned his attention to another huge target, the LV 905. Cannon shells of his Bf 110 G4 ripped through the Halifax which went down in steep descent, already on fire and likely out of control. It flipped over and broke into two when it crashed in a meadow. The largest part of the bomber then corkscrewed through the dike deep into the spongy peat soil.
The bodies of the two tail gunners were thrown from the crashing wreckage. That same morning, a local man, Anton van der Pluijm, was forced by the Germans to help clear the debris and take away the remains of the airmen.
The Halifax bomber crash site was known for decades to the older inhabitants of Hank and surrounding area. From 1989 on, Van der Pluijm, by then a volunteer at the local Archives Foundation, and others began tracing the history of the Halifax bomber and its crew. They eventually pieced together nearly every minute of the plane’s final hours. Their other aim was to dig up the aircraft’s wreckage.
After contacting the relatives of the seven LV 905 crew members, the Archives Foundation prepared the actual recovery of the wreckage. With the assistance of the municipality of Werkendam, which now owns the wreckage, a special recovery foundation was formed in 2003.
Prince Bernhard, who had been a Dutch wartime commander, brought the members of the foundation into contact with a similar group involved in the recovery of a downed RAF bomber near Wilnis. Much of the Hank recovery cost, estimated at about $300,000, was paid by the Dutch government.
Besides determining how and where the remains of the crew members are to be burried, the foundation, together with the municipality, also must decide what to do with the various pieces of the wreckage. The Biesbosch Museum already has expressed an interest in obtaining some pieces, while larger items, such as the engines, could become part of a memorial.
There still are an estimated 2,000 WWII plane wrecks buried in the Dutch soil and waterways, and in the Dutch section of the North Sea. It is believed that well over 6,000 planes crashed in the Netherlands and in its territorial waters. According to the Department of Defense, most of the locations of the remaining wrecks are unknown. Over 400 of these likely contain human remains.